This piece is a commentary, part of The Appeal’s collection of opinion and analysis.
Before COVID-19 hit Los Angeles—the American capital of homelessness and inequality—momentum was building. Unhoused and housed people were working side by side to protect an encampment alongside Echo Park Lake, fighting Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell to let residents stay in the park and have access to services like bathrooms and washing stations. Pressure was building to stop sweeps—violent cleanups that break up encampments and disrupt what little stability unhoused people are able to carve out for themselves, often resulting in catastrophic loss of property (medicine, work materials, crucial documents) or interaction with law enforcement, detainment, and death. Momentum was mounting as City Hall, the residents of the neighborhood, and the media recognized this burgeoning movement.
Then, the pandemic arrived. Now coronavirus presents new, unique challenges for people living in poverty and those fighting the uphill battle of housing and empowering the poor.
Sweeps have continued in most parts of LA, which is doubly cruel. Imagine trying to stay safe, buffered from the virus, or mentally stable while teams of police and sanitation workers routinely harass and harangue you. Rarely do unhoused individuals get the services and needed outreach; instead, it’s commonplace to see sanitation crews throwing away every possession you have, including the very shelter you rely on to survive.
In a historical time of systemic shutdowns, just existing and trying to function has become complex. Organizers are seeing a much bigger demand for people giving mutual aid to the poor, which is great, but also more logistically challenging than ever to coordinate. More precautions need to be taken not to spread the virus. Supplies are often out of stock, so creating DIY solutions like homemade hand sanitizer means extra work. And keeping up with the most current information, when from the city, county, or whomever has been challenging. To top it all off it’s been raining all week, which we’re notoriously unprepared for.
Organizers in LA have been looking to the Bay Area as a sort of glimpse into the future as the virus and response are a few days more advanced than LA. Bay Area counties announced a “shelter in place” order, requiring people to stay home, which raises the question, “What if you don’t have housing?” (The orders state that homeless people are exempt.) If “shelter in place” makes its way down to LA, this will halt, or at least complicate, a lot of real-life organizing, like the Reclaiming Our Homes project, which is an occupation launched in El Sereno last week by homeless and precariously housed people of state-owned housing in the spirit of Moms 4 Housing. Trying to occupy space extralegally with rotating shifts of organizers while trying to maintain safety precautions is challenging on a regular day.
In addition to the legal danger, there’s also just a baseline difficulty in lobbying and exerting pressure. How do you lobby someone like Mayor Eric Garcetti—a figure who under better circumstances is often away from LA, and who generally doesn’t want to interact with unhoused activists, and who has enormous executive ability to fast track emergency initiatives—now that they’ve shut down City Hall?
Before the virus hit, LA was already arguably the least democratic American city. Only 15 City Council members preside over four million constituents in their little fiefdoms. Compare that to Chicago’s 50 aldermen or New York’s 51 councilmembers. LA’s council has an enormous amount of power; they vote unanimously 99.37 percent of the time (rendering public comment and other tactics essentially symbolic); and voter turnout is historically low. At least six councilmembers have been embroiled in corruption investigations in the past two years (in addition to Mayor Garcetti), which is more than a third of them. The region’s journalism is really suffering, which only contributes to the lack of accountability downtown. The county is controlled by five supervisors, each representing over two million residents (more than many senators), and most Angelenos have no idea who their supervisor is or what they do. This deeply undemocratic system has resulted in LA being the least affordable city in America by income (by at least one index) as well as the homelessness and incarceration capital of the country. And that was before this new crisis.
But the biggest challenge for the unhoused is the practical complexity of merely existing. Hard enough on a good day, it is almost impossible to imagine being able to function in a once-in-a-generation systemic shutdown. The first problem is the task of just informing unhoused people of what is happening. With gyms and libraries shut down across LA, unhoused people have lost spaces to charge their phones and other electronics. For many, these devices are the only way to receive news. And homeless outreach has dropped off in many neighborhoods.
Despite these difficulties, organizers have seen some small victories amid the pandemic. This week, a councilmember facing a November run-off was pressured into halting violent encampment sweeps in his district. The city approved an eviction moratorium on Tuesday, which still needs to be finalized. While certainly a positive move, it still presumes people will be able to pay back rent eventually. Even though there will be a fund to support it, it’s insufficient for a region where 600,000 people spend 90 percent of their income on rent.
And while these measures were motivated by the pandemic, many fear that things will revert to the old status quo after “normalcy” is restored, and that coronavirus will be an excuse to confine and shelter people who don’t want that. There are a variety of reasons unhoused people reject shelter (no animals allowed, law enforcement presence or surveillance, limits on personal belongings they can bring with them, and lack of documentation or legal status to name a few). But given the outbreak, the fear is that forcing people into close quarters would almost guarantee the virus spreads through these communities.
As businesses shutter to slow the spread of the pandemic, workers are losing their jobs en masse, and a recession seems inevitable. Barring the introduction of an array of more robust tenant protections and universal income injections, we’re going to see a lot more severely rent-burdened people enter homelessness or become precariously housed in the coming weeks and months. Three unhoused people already die on average every day in LA, which is already a crushing statistic. Thinking about how much that number is going to go up is heartbreaking.
But knowing there are people willing to fight in face of metastasizing chaos and confront whatever new nightmare presented is empowering. The demands have been the same the whole time: services, halting police-driven sweeps and evictions, strengthening tenant protections. These are all things the city could have easily done at any other time. We shouldn’t need a disaster on top of a disaster to grease the wheels of progress. But here we are.
Jonny Coleman is a writer and organizer with NOlympics LA, which has collaborated with grassroots organizations like Street Watch LA, DSA-LA, LA Tenants Union, and many other groups doing the work mentioned in this piece.